Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

29 August, 2006

Alternate magic system
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 3:48 AM

One of the critiques against online games is that there is no innovation. Although games do have variety between them, some design show a lack of originality. Take spells, for example. How many times do you see the same old thing? A spells organized by some variation of the classical elements which consume spell points to cast.

To show that alternatives can exist, I though I’d share a system I created for an unpublished barbarian-themed paper RPG.

The goal was to create a game in the vein of the Conan movies. It was also partially inspired by me playing Warrior Blade: Rastan Saga 3. The goal was to have a game that use miniatures but encouraged fast action. The combats would be strategically mowing through mooks until you got to the main baddie, which would then be more like a “traditional” RPG combat between equals. Unfortunately, the game was unpublished and I never got a chance to playtest it very well. Maybe if there’s enough interest, I might pretty it up and put it out for people to enjoy.

Anyway, the point of this is to show off the magic system. Instead of falling back on the usual classical elements, I wanted to pick a new paradigm for magic. So, I chose the five basic senses. Each sense controls a different type of magic. Here’s an overview, along with a small motivation to explain why I associated those spells with that sense.

Touch: Strength, repair, damage, inflict disease, alter substance, defend against damage.
Motivation: touching transfers power into an object or person, or alters it.
Taste: Healing, cure poison/disease/blindness/deafness, regeneration, conjure food/water.
Motivation: Animals lick wounds to heal them.
Smell: Detect, identify, and manipulate magic; weaken; wither; slow; invoke or remove curse; water breathing; glyphs.
Motivation: Magics as smells is interesting. Imagine a wizard sniffing the air to detect magic; works, doesn’t it?
Sight: Illusions, stun, charm, blindness, invisibility, night vision, far-sight, sleep, confusion
Motivation: Illusions affect the eyes. Other spells are traditionally grouped in that general category.
Hearing: Detect objects, far communication, silence/deafness, summoning/banishing, languages, divination.
Motivation: We detect things we can’t see with our ears, so detection-type spells make sense.

Next, there were different levels of ability which would depend on how you could cast the spell. What’s interesting here is that the more potent your magic ability was, the more cumbersome it became. You might have a few innate powers that were easy to command, or you might have a vast knowledge of magic that could only be accessed through intricate rituals. Some spells could only be cast in certain forms; no summing demons as an innate power! ;) Again, this fit with the theme where magic became cumbersome for those immersed in the powers. The different levels were:

Ritual: A lengthy casting the spell.
Spell item: Focusing spell into an item, 1 use is like casting the spell.
Talisman: A version of the spell is put into item, active when worn usually for a limited duration (protection charms, etc.)
Innate: No “casting” ritual, can just use the spell as an ability. For limited spellcasters.

Finally, you had the magic ability. All major abilities were rated in different sided dice. So, a d4 indicated someone with a very limited ability, and a d12 showed someone of great power. Each skill (e.g., each school of magic) would have a modifier to this die. So a magic rating of d8 and a Taste Magic of 5 means you roll 1d8+5 for your final result, compared to a difficulty number. The interesting bit of this system was that your skills had a maximum rating that depended on your ability rating, but it didn’t work the way you might expect. People with lower ability ratings could get higher in skills to the point where they could average about the same as anyone else. In fact, they would have more consistent rolls. However, the person with the higher base ability could do significantly better (and significantly worse).

In addition, each level of ability determined something about your character. For Health, it determined how many hours of sleep per night you needed in addition to hit points and physical resistances. For magic, your magic level determined how many spells you knew and how you could cast them. This chart shows the restrictions:

d4: Limited to 1 school, up to 2 innate powers.
d6: Limited to 2 schools, up to 4 innate powers.
d8: Limited to 3 schools, up to 6 innate powers or ritual spells.
d10: Limited to 4 schools, requires rituals, and can make minor talismans and spell items.
d12: Allows all schools, requires rituals, and can make talismans and spell items.

That’s the system in a nutshell. Obviously there are some more issues to consider for balance’s sake. For example, how often can innate powers be used? Taking a healing spell as an innate power should be allowed, but being able to use it continuously goes against the whole barbarian setting.

So, what does this have to do with online games? Well, I’m not saying that we can copy this wholesale into a game system. Instead, I think the lesson here is that we can start thinking outside the box a bit. You don’t have to have the same boring spells in every game based on the spells in the D&D manual. Taking a new approach can open up some interesting alternatives to the same old derivative crap we see out there.

What do you think? Does this sound interesting? Do you think it would open up new opportunities that cloning a D&D-type system wouldn’t give? What tweaks would you make?

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  1. And I have a d20 system where which of the 7 “Ways” you picked for your character* (*with an 8th “Way of the Dark” for major villians) defined the way your mystical abilities would develop. For example, the Way of the Healer had healing the illusion abilities, and the Way of the Sentinel had danger sense, protection and melee abilities.

    How far you chase your mystic abilities compared to the normal fighter, rogue or sage (the three base clases) depends – and you can chase either spellcasting or “innate” abilitites which are far harder to block or prevent, but are weaker.

    And yes, I do intend to release the rules as Open Content at some point. (I allready released some firearm rules at least one product is using…)

    “A D&D type system” is fairly innacurate these days considering what’s avaliable for d20/SRD…

    Comment by Andrew Crystall — 29 August, 2006 @ 5:58 AM

  2. Going outside the box is definitely possible — it’s more of a question of funding isn’t it? :)

    I encourage you to ‘pretty it up’ and do a digital release. Give it a web page and some support. Heck, I’ll playtest it! The paper market is very open to new ideas and digital distribution these days. Not a million dollar thing (which you know) but there are many more people willing to stray from the core now that the core has strayed itself.

    I like gritty worlds/systems so I’d definitely like to see more.

    Comment by Grimwell — 29 August, 2006 @ 7:20 AM

  3. One cool mechanic I played on Irix was spellcaster:

    Note that it can play with any number, not just two as in that text.

    Comment by Brask Mumei — 29 August, 2006 @ 10:19 PM

  4. Brask: What few people seem to realize is that game was originally the creation of our very own Dr. Richard Bartle. The program versions aren’t his creation, but the original design is. Just goes to show how great of a designer he is. :)

    And, yes, it is a very original concept for spellcasting. It has a popular following, but few people have explored the possibilities in more depth.

    Comment by Psychochild — 30 August, 2006 @ 1:17 AM

  5. I like the idea quite a lot really. Especially the idea that it actually becomes more cumbersome. Seems more real that spells get trickier rather than just more and more powerful through practice alone.

    The book Sabriel had an interesting magic concept. Basically seven bells, each when rung has a different power. From simple ‘go to sleep’, to the more explosive ‘all who hear it die.’ This was backed up with ‘charter’ magic which was gesture based symbols drawn in the air and woven together.

    Similiarly there was a trilogy about wind (the name eludes me) that used wind instruments to affect the world.

    Comment by Jpoku — 30 August, 2006 @ 2:37 AM

  6. Grimwell,

    epublishing is cheap. As in, Open Office and some testers, a friendly artist (and you can allways find someone who’ll work on a percentage fro RPG’s) and a DTP program.

    I have a nearly-complete Starfire d20 RPG. But…given the current state of the liscence I’m not going to release it. I’ll get round to re-writing it for one of my “in-house” sci-fi settings (Communion of Man, The Arcadia Project, A New Eden)

    Comment by Andrew Crystall — 30 August, 2006 @ 6:05 AM

  7. My awe for Richard Bartle increases. Guess I should have read the attribution line more carefully – I just quickly glanced at the rules to verify they were the same as the computer game that I remembered.

    Put my vote in for exploring the concept more deeply…

    Comment by Brask Mumei — 30 August, 2006 @ 7:14 AM

  8. Andrew — That’s my entire point. It’s cheap to put a game out there, and you don’t even have to embrace the d20 license, or the OGL to get people interested. So if Brian has an interesting game system that offers something different, I’d like to see it, and he can get a trickle of incoming revenue from other niche paper players like myself without huge effort in keeping it ‘fresh’.

    Digital good. Viva la revolution!

    Comment by Grimwell — 30 August, 2006 @ 8:46 AM

  9. If you wanna go barbaric relate the magics to actual body parts… like: hands, nose, mouth stuffs, ears and eyeballs. Some kind of blood-magic would seem to fit in as the magic that ties all the others together perhaps?

    Then you can harvest the parts that would be great for reagents and talisman components.

    I’ve seen tribal people on TV actually mutilate certain body parts to make charms for themselves. One woman had a few of her own fingers and I think some hair on a necklace.

    Imagine a necklace of goblin ears, and eyeball elixirs and such, wands made out of arms. Not all spells require the actual body parts I’d imagine that would get tedious.

    Comment by Ketzup — 31 August, 2006 @ 9:36 PM

  10. Weekend Design Challenge: Magic systems…

    As discussed in a previous post (, alternate magic systems can give your game an original angle. Instead of using the same old systems that have been in use since the ancient days of computer RPGs, let’s focus on cre…

    Trackback by Psychochild's Blog — 2 September, 2006 @ 1:25 AM

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